On paper, the Hava Wireless HD one-ups the Slingbox with some worthwhile additions. First and foremost, it has a built-in 802.11g wireless capability, so it can interface with any existing wireless or Ethernet network (Slingbox is Ethernet only). Secondly, it integrates with a PC running Windows XP Media Center Edition, allowing you to record live streaming video on your PC when you're streaming inside your home (a standalone PC viewing application is provided for non-MCE machines). And finally, the Hava allows multicasting, which means that, within your home network, several users can watch the stream at the same while one person watches remotely via the Internet (Slingbox allows only a single viewer at a time).
Design and connectivity
The Hava Wireless HD looks like a big network router, measuring 2 inches high by 12 wide by 7 deep. Our review unit was a generic silver box with four green status LEDs on its front panel. And while it's one of the more homely-looking pieces of electronic equipment, giving Scientific Atlanta cable boxes a run for its money on the ugly scale, Monsoon has been tinkering with the design of the enclosure, so future models could offer a different look and feel (the guts of the box should remain unchanged).
On a more positive note, the rear panel is jam packed with more jacks than an average DVD player. There are composite, S-Video, and component inputs, along with one set of stereo audio jacks (red and white RCA connectors) and a screw-type RF input. You can feed as many as four sources to the box, including an unscrambled RF source such as an analog cable feed or an antenna, which takes advantage of the built-in TV tuner. But because the composite, S-Video, and component inputs share a single set of audio jacks, you'll need to purchase Y-cable adapters to feed them simultaneously. Likewise, you'll have to have the second and third devices powered off (or muted), or you'll get a mash-up of all the simultaneous audio streams. Alternately, you might use the second input as a video-only security camera feed--just plug in your camcorder. (By comparison, the Slingbox Pro has discrete audio inputs for each of its video sources.)
Rounding out the Hava's rear panel is a connector for the included dual-headed IR blaster, which remotely controls the A/V sources of your choice, such as cable/satellite boxes and DVRs. To interface with your home network, the Hava has both a standard Ethernet port (for wired connections) and dual wireless antennas.
The Wireless HD is the first of three Hava models. The lineup has recently expanded to include the $200 Hava Pro HD, which is basically identical except that it offers only wired Ethernet connectivity--no Wi-Fi. Monsoon is also planning to release an entry-level Hava Gold model (no wireless, no built-in TV tuner) for just $100. If the company meets that price point, it'll be the most affordable standalone placeshifting device to date.
Setting up the Hava is a two-step process: you need to connect the A/V cables to the video source(s); then connect it to your network, which involves installing the included software on a PC. Linking up with your home-theater components is just as straightforward as hooking up a VCR or a DVD recorder. We appreciated the pass-through outputs, which let the Hava sit innocuously in the chain between our cable box and the A/V receiver, without the need for splitters or monopolizing precious video outputs. Of course, as with any placeshifting box, the A/V source you connect to the Hava will determine how much you'll get out of it. A cable or satellite set-top box will let you watch all those channels on your PC, but a TiVo-style digital video recorder will provides the added value of accessing those great DVR features--pausing and rewinding live TV, watching previously recorded shows--remotely.
Once the Hava box is hooked up and powered on, you have to install the setup software on a nearby PC. The Hava boasts a pretty decent setup wizard; it wasn't flawless, by any means, but it did an admirable job of taking us through the process step by step. We installed the software on a wireless laptop (the Hava software is Windows only). The setup program logs in to the Hava itself--wirelessly--and asks you to input your network's wireless encryption key (it's WEP-only for now, but Monsoon is pledging to add WPA support soon). Thereafter, the Hava itself can access your wireless network, and you should be good to go. We installed it at least three times on three different PCs, and there were a few hiccups here and there--the process can occasionally "confuse" a PC's wireless card, for instance, and might require some manual intervention. But as far as wirelessly configuring a network device goes, it's among the more impressive and successful experiences we've had. In fact, it bested Sony's LocationFree LF-B20 in two big ways: the setup process was not only smoother but truly wireless throughout; Sony requires its unit to be connected via Ethernet during the setup process. That said, if you don't have a Wi-Fi network, the Hava works just as well via Ethernet.
Like the Slingbox and the Sony, you configure the Hava viewing software to control your set-top box remotely by verifying the make and model during the setup process. The Hava seemed to list most of the major brands of cable and satellite boxes and DVRs (as well as a variety of other manufacturers, such as TiVo, Sony, Panasonic, and the like), and it had no trouble controlling a standard DirecTV box or a Scientific Atlanta 8300HD DVR via its IR blaster. But the onscreen remotes were a disappointment: they were generic bare-bones models, not the "skinned" versions offered by Slingbox, which offer onscreen doppelgangers of the real clickers. While most of the more advanced buttons were available via a drop-down menu, the DVR's control was missing at least one all-important button: the List key. As a result, we were unable to access all of our recorded shows. (Monsoon is pledging to add skinned remotes in a later software update.)
Remote issues notwithstanding, there was a lot to like about the Hava's performance. Wirelessly or wired, streaming was--for the most part--smooth and steady. The system uses MPEG2 streaming on a home network, and with the ample bandwidth therein, the video quality was excellent. Even when the window was maximized to full size, the resulting picture was very watchable. It wasn't quite DVD quality, but given the rather muddy signal we've come to expect on DirecTV's standard-def channels, it wasn't a big step down from the TV itself. When accessing the Hava from a remote location (via the Internet, outside the home network), the quality was ratcheted down to MPEG4, the higher compression making better use of the restricted bandwidth. As always, the quality is largely dependent on the available network bandwidth; you'll want at least 300Kbps on both upstream and downstream connections, with 400Kbps to 500Kbps (and beyond) offering a noticeably better picture.
The Hava's distinguishing features all proved to work as advertised, though they aren't without their caveats. Multicasting worked fine: we were able to watch a stream simultaneously on two different PCs logged into a closed LAN--Monsoon claims it's test more than 50 simultaneous viewers on a closed network--plus a third on the outside via the Internet. Furthermore, the Hava viewing software is always buffering (a la TiVo), so you can pause and rewind live video feeds as well as manually record programs to your hard drive for later viewing. The catch is that this function works only on a home network--not when you're watching remotely via the Internet.
Hava really shines for owners of Windows Media Center Edition (MCE). The software installs itself in such a way as to "fool" Media Center into seeing the Hava as a built-in TV tuner card. As a result, you can use the Windows electronic programming guide and the computer's wireless remote to browse programs and record shows just as you otherwise would--but instead of being tethered to the cable/satellite box, you can be in another room or even in another country. As a result, watching TV programming on an MCE computer--especially a laptop--is a much more enjoyable and mobile experience. Unfortunately, the same caveat as above applies: the MCE streaming only works inside a home network. But anything you record can be played back anywhere.
Hava vs. Slingbox and Sony LocationFree TV
Comparing the Hava to the more established players in the placeshifting market yields a mixed--but promising--box score. Sling still edges the competition in some key areas: its software and setup routine remains the gold standard for ease of use and intuitive design for these sort of devices, and its impressive device compatibility--Windows PCs, Windows Mobile phones/handhelds, and Macs--is already set to grow in the near future. Meanwhile, Sony's latest LocationFree TV products add wireless networking and PSP viewing to the mix, but they lose points for their more complex software and setup routines. Hava, meanwhile, delivers the same wireless advantage found on the Sony products, plus the addition of the multicasting features, Media Center integration, and recording functionality--and it does all of it at a very competitive $250 price point.
In terms of performance, the Hava is no slouch. With the variables of source and destination bandwidth--and the fact that Monsoon, Sling, and Sony will continue to tweak and improve their respective compression technologies and algorithms--head-to-head comparisons will likely produce seesaw results in the months ahead, making it hard to choose an outright winner for the best video quality. But the Hava seems to equal--if not surpass--the impressive streaming offered by Sling's products on a home network, though we'd still give the edge to Slingbox for remote streaming over the Web.
As with all such networked products, Monsoon has promised a laundry list of improvements via future software and firmware updates. Among the forthcoming upgrades: WPA networking support, activation of HD video pass-through/streaming (via the component inputs), better onscreen remotes, the ability to use the Hava as a wireless access point, more streamlined setup, and improved software stability. And Monsoon has also mentioned its desire to add viewing clients for additional platforms, including Windows Mobile devices and Symbian smart phones. If that sounds like a lot, it is--and there's absolutely no guarantee as to when we'll see any of it. In other words, if any of those upgrades are a must-have for you, wait until they've been officially released before committing to the Hava.
At the end of the day, the Hava Wireless shows great promise. It's still a little too rough around the edges to be a true Slingbox killer, but the overall Hava experience easily bests that of Sony's LocationFree TV in terms of usability and features--at least for Windows users. And if Monsoon's programmers deliver on the product's potential by adding incremental improvements in a timely fashion, there's no reason the Hava can't get even better as time goes on. For the time being, the Hava's rich feature set, low price, and impressive performance makes it a credible alternative for any potential Slingbox owners. Windows Media Center users, meanwhile, may very well find it to be a must-have accessory.